After ruminating over the national conventions these past two weeks, I want to comment on the Republicans first. I am disturbed by their peddling of a fantasy that we are living in a post-apocalyptic scenario. The opening day of their convention was themed “Make America Safe Again”, despite the fact that violent crime has been declining in the United States since the early 90’s. In his speech that day, Sheriff David Clarke argued that to make America great again, the country would have to be safe again. He cited a recent Gallup poll finding that most Americans (53%) worry a great deal about violence in 2016—the highest since 2001. He spoke of a collapse of the social order in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Baton Rouge. And yet the United States at the end of the Obama years is in the midst of its lowest crime rates in 45 years. This was effectively brushed aside by Trump—he suggested we focus on very particular statistics about crime going up in big cities in 2015 relative to 2014. Afterward, Trump surrogate Newt Gingrich crowed about how politicians deal in feelings, not facts; implying he’d continue to encourage people to fantasize about a post-apocalyptic scenario that, of course, only Trump can save us from.
While Republicans may represent an extreme in fact-free politics, false beliefs about escalating violence are not unique to Republicans. News media—both mainstream and independent—have financial interests to cover violence vividly and thoroughly. And even when covering relatively mundane issues, the media looks for and encourages conflict as it commands more attention than agreement or complicated nuances. As CBS CEO Les Moonves put it in February in the context of the rise of Donald Trump’s politics, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” However, the problem is not as simple as the popular scorning of “the media” implies. Exclusively reporting mundane reality predictably gets lower ratings than more sensationalist fare. This is true for obvious reasons. Human beings find sex and violence far more interesting than subtle insight and comparative statistics. After all, the evolution of our consciousness, just as the evolution of all other living systems, has been driven by reproduction and survival (and so we’re particularly fascinated by sex and violence). And as a result of the same evolutionary history, we prefer narratives to make facts more memorable and comprehensible. It’s only natural that fantasy plays a central role in our society.
This central role of fantasy is troubling in the context of democracy. In the case of Donald Trump, what is most troubling is the fact that his ascension proves that there are tens of millions of Americans ready and willing to vote for a cartoon-like narcissist for president. Regardless of who wins in November, this group will continue to live in a shared fantasy world. Trash talk radio will continue to make money patting listeners on the back for seeing the world “as it really is” (i.e., for living in this shared fantasy world). The Republican establishment fought hard to defeat Trump… and lost. Trump’s rise is genuinely populist… and delusional. This is a problem that our media has failed and continues to fail to cover.
I hope the graphs and notes below help disabuse readers of post-apocalyptic myths that politicians, pundits, and our own imaginations tend to encourage. Note that the full data for 2015 is not yet available. In Trump’s speech he said “Homicides last year increased by 17 percent in America’s 50 largest cities.” That 17% is based on an analysis of preliminary FBI data, however violent crime overall only increased 1.7% according to that same preliminary FBI data. A 1.7% increase would put us somewhere in between the rates of 2013 and 2012.
Property crimes, the most common crime category in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, reached their peak over the last 55 years in 1980, with 5,350 crimes for every 100,000 Americans (just over 12 million such incidents in a population of 225 million). The rate has been steadily declining since the early 90’s. By 2014, the rate had dropped to 2,595 (almost 8.3 million incidents in a population of almost 320 million). We see similar trends in the categories of larceny and burglary. The first graph below includes these three more common forms of crime, the next graph excludes property crimes, larceny, and burglary to get a closer look at the violent crime rates.
United States Crime Rates (per 100,000) 1960 – 2014
Data from the Uniform Crime Reports published by the FBI
Note that “vehicle theft” is mixed in with these violent crime categories. At this level, we can see there was a peak in the early 80’s, but the highest peak in violent crime over the last 55 years was in 1992, and the rates have been steadily dropping ever since. Aggravated assault, for example, peaked in 1992 with 442 such assaults for every 100,000 people (1.1 million incidents in a population of 255 million). Now let’s zoom in further as the categories of rape and murder are still hard to see at this level.
Once again, while less dramatic than other categories, we see a similar pattern of a peak in the early 90’s and a decline since that time. In the case of murder, most of the decline occurred before 2000, and has declined more gradually since that time. The murder rate peaked in 1980 at 10.2 murders per 100,000 (23,040 murders in a population of 225 million), and in 1991 at 9.8 (24,700 murders among 250 million people). By 2014, that rate was cut in half to 4.5 (14,249 murders in a population of almost 320 million).